Planners loosen rules, but want to avoid distracting driversWhat at first appeared to be a bureaucratic headache for Astoria High School now has the potential to turn into an educational experience for its students.

Several months ago, the school obtained permission from the city to erect a message sign in front of its main entrance.

Principal Larry Lockett said the school's student council raised approximately $12,000 for the sign through revenue from student body cards, dances and other activities. The school could display messages on the sign, but only change the message once every 24 hours - because the city's code on signage does not allow moveable text signs.

The Schooner sign in downtown Astoria has the capability of movement, with the sailboat gliding along the water.

LORI ASSA-The Daily AstorianInformation about sporting events, tests and other school activities is displayed on the sign.

Lockett said the school agreed to the conditions, but a technical problem had messages scrolling on the sign, which is in violation of Astoria's code.

"When we first put it up we had a glitch and couldn't get it shut off rotation," he said. "We talked to the city and they were real receptive and worked with us."

Eventually the school and city worked it out that the school could program a new message into the sign every 24 hours.

The fact that the school couldn't use it to display a variety of messages after spending a good deal of money on such a sign prompted Mayor Willis Van Dusen to weigh in on the matter. He asked the city's planning department at a City Council meeting in November to see if it couldn't update the code to allow such signs for limited uses.

Planner Rosemary Johnson has completed a rough draft of the code update, which she said she has given to Van Dusen for his review.

She said under the new code, a message would have to stay static, unblinking and unmoving, for at least 10 seconds before changing to a new message.

The code revisions would still prohibit the scrolling message signs that run along a sign from right to left.

After Van Dusen gives the code update his personal once-over, Johnson said she'll present the update to the city's planning commission during a work session after its Jan. 27 meeting, during which commissioners can provide their own feedback on the code update.

At a later commission meeting, possibly in March, the public would get its first chance to provide input on the proposed code change during a public hearing. The commission would then make its decision on the update, before passing the issue on the Astoria City Council for the final say on the matter.

"We're still developing this," she said.

In writing the update, Johnson said she "drew a lot from other cities" in how they handled sign issues. Other elements of the updated code include recommendations that it restrict free-standing changeable text signs and limits on the square footage of acceptable signs.

Under the proposed code, a developer or property owner would have to go through a review process with the city's planning commission to obtain permission for a changeable text sign.

To get the full use of the high school's sign, Lockett said a group of students will have to go before the planning commission to request that the sign have more than one message. That process should provide an excellent opportunity for students to experience first hand how city government works.

Part of the discussion about signs grew out of two other proposed signs. One, planned for the Liberty Theater, would alert passersby to upcoming events at the restored venue. The other, hanging above the renovated Schooner restaurant space, depicts the motion of a sailing ship by using flashing fluorescent lights.

Johnson said the Schooner sign has historic value because it hung on the building in the past. This would make it exempt from the new code, but subject to review by the Historic Landmarks Commission.

Astoria has a signage code in place for a few reasons.

The first of which is to preserve Astoria's character, which is based on the volume of historic properties, Johnson said.

"Lots of these types of flashing signs gives the city a different character," she said.

To prevent clusters of such signs in the future, Johnson said the new code would also prohibit several changeable text signs in one area. If one such sign is allowed in a certain location, another could not be located within a set distance.

She said the signs can be distracting to drivers, who may lose focus on the road as they crane their necks to read a scrolling message.

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